Unlike the last book I reviewed, Conceit, to which I brought a lot of preconceived notions, Passion took me by surprise. In many ways.
It has some similarities to Conceit, and indeed to my own novel The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson, in that it’s about a women who are known to history mainly because of their association with famous writers. Passion explores the lives of the women who loved the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats. Three of the women — Byron’s psycho-chick obsessed lover Caroline Lamb, Byron’s sister-lover Augusta Leigh, and Keats’s fiancee Fanny Brawne — are shadowy figures in literary history apart from their connection with the men in their lives. The fourth, Shelley’s wife Mary, is of course a literary figure in her own right, the creator of Frankenstein and the daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. All four become central figures in their own stories here as Passion takes turns viewing the short and intense lives of these three poets through the eyes of the women who loved them.
I would never have heard of Passion if the author’s name weren’t Jude Morgan, but since Morgan’s books were shelved next to mine at Chapters I saw Passion and another novel, Symphony, and thought they looked somewhat interesting. I picked up Passion on a whim, because the hardcover was on the bargain table and I thought, “Hey, it could be all right, and for five bucks how can I go wrong?”
As it turned out, I absolutely loved the novel. I feel into it like falling into a warm pool; it absorbed me completely. Morgan plays with language, using different writing styles as the point of view shifts between different characters. Caroline Lamb speaks directly to the reader in a headlong, breathless first-person; a few sections from the point of view of Byron’s wife Annabella are as weighty and wordy as any nineteenth-century novel. From the first few pages, each of the four main characters is as distinct and real as someone you’ve known all your life.
I found all the stories equally compelling, though the Fanny Brawne-John Keats love story is a little disconnected from the rest, since Keats had so little interaction with Shelley and Byron; this plotline isn’t as tightly woven into the novel as the others are, yet it is still a beautiful and tragic little love story. All these stories, of course, are tragic, and I kept turning the pages not to find out what would happen — I already knew that — but to continue living the experience along with these unforgettable women.
This book was a surprise in more ways than one. Not only did this impulse buy turn out to be one of the best historical novels I’ve read recently, but the novel sneaked past one of my deep-seated prejudices. Many people know that I have certain reservations about novels by men — there are wonderful and brilliant exceptions, but generally I’m less likely to pick up a book by a man than one by a woman, especially if the man is trying to write from a woman’s point of view. When I was raving about this book someone did point out to me that “Jude” is normally a man’s name, but because the book was about women, the cover was very feminine-looking, and I have actually met a woman named Jude, I just assumed Jude Morgan was female. Only when I’d been completely drawn in and finished the book did I discover that Jude is not only a man, he’s an Englishman named Tim Wilson.
Apart from having chosen a pen name that puts his books next to mine on the shelf at Chapters, there are certain other parallels between Tim/Jude and myself. He’s about my age (early 40s), he’s published quite a lot of not-very-well-known genre fiction before getting into big blockbuster historical novels, and he teaches in an adult-education program. Here’s one thing I wish we had in common: I’d love to write a book as good as Passion. XY chromosomes or not, I will definitely be reading more books by Jude Morgan.